Weightlessly from cloud to cloud

One of the nicest things about my job is that I get to meet a lot of different people. Not infrequently, these encounters result in my having to (or more appositely, getting an opportunity to) get rid of the occasional prejudice that everyone is subject to, after all. And sometimes this happens at places where I am completely unprepared for it. Like the glider airfield in Schwandorf, for example.

That’s where my work for our staff newspaper took me on a hot Sunday afternoon. This publication is usually reserved for topics involving strategic decisions, current projects and innovations, but we also regularly provide coverage of staff’s unusual hobbies. From constructing longbows or breeding snakes, all the way through to parachuting, we’ve already covered almost everything conceivable. And in this issue, the chosen topic was gliding.

The prior knowledge I possessed as I set off on Sunday morning was limited to an article I had skimmed at the very last minute on Wikipedia. In other words, I had no idea. This didn’t stop me, though, from imagining in great detail what it might be like in a gliding club – and that can be most accurately described with the adjective “elitist”. I should keep the details to myself, I think, but this I can reveal: white linen suits, expensive watches and a clubhouse featuring lots of leather and mahogany were the salient features. Hmmm.

It had already begun to dawn on me before I arrived that my prejudices may have been running away with me: shortly before Lake Murner, an inconspicuous sign guided me off the road and into the forest. My car bumped along a narrow path between the trees, until the path made a turn to the right – and suddenly a huge clearing in the forest opened up: that must be the airfield.

Not at all what I expected

My first thought when I got out of my car was: “Okay, Snobbiton looks a bit different.” Instead of the club villa I was anticipating, I was looking at a small clubhouse getting on in years, with a barbecue pit and beer benches in front of the door, plus a colourful array of igloo tents. As I was to find out later, these belong to a flying club from Hesse, which was camping there for two weeks. And instead of the elitist clientele, the place is full of relaxed people in comfortable leisurewear. Some of them are tinkering with equipment, while others have made themselves comfortable on folding chairs next to the runway. While the air traffic controller concentrates on regulating operations on the ground and in the air, they casually watch the pilots taking off, and comment good-naturedly on the spectacle.

The atmosphere lies somewhere between hobby-mechanic-club mood and campsite conviviality – I feel immediately at home. An impression that’s confirmed when I see two cheerfully smiling colleagues from Krones coming towards me: Elisabeth Pilney and Christoph Neudecker are both passionate glider pilots, and are keen to give me a small insight into their unusual hobby today. Happily, it doesn’t bother them that I know little or nothing about flying. On the contrary: patiently they give me a guided tour of the airfield, and explain everything I want to know. Their enthusiasm for flying resonates in every word they speak – and I find it immediately infectious.

For Christoph, the airfield has been a second home ever since his kindergarten days. “My older brother is a flight instructor here in the club,” he explains. “The enthusiasm for everything that flies I inherited from him, as it were.” He himself began learning to fly at the earliest possible opportunity, when he turned 14. At the age of 16 he had his glider pilot’s licence in the bag, since when he has spent hundreds of hours in the air. Elisabeth, on the other hand, only discovered flying a few years ago. “When I was a working student at Continental, my mentor took me up to the airfield with him once,” she recalls. “I only flew with him once – and I joined the club the very next day.”

In the air alone – yet part of a team

It was especially the feeling of weightlessness and the peace above the clouds that attracted the mechanical engineer. “When you pilot a glider, there’s no engine noise,” she says. “You’re completely alone with your thoughts up there, and the stress of everyday life literally falls off.” As a member of the Schwandorf flying sports club, she doesn’t need a glider of her own in order to practise her hobby – she just uses the club’s aircraft. In return, she helps out with all the little jobs that need doing around the airfield. After all, “gliding is a real team sport,” Christoph emphasises. Not only do all club members share in the repair and maintenance of the equipment, they also rely on each other’s support when flying. That begins rights on take-off: since classic gliders do not have a propulsion unit, they are lifted into the heights through external assistance – either by means of a cable winch or by a motorised aircraft providing what is known as an “aerotow”.

Looking out for fleecy clouds

Once up there, the pilots use only thermals. When the sun shines on the surface of the earth, warm air rises – and keeps on doing so until it has either cooled down to ambient temperature or meets air masses of similar density. As Christoph explains, the best glider weather is “blue skies with lots of little fleecy clouds.” That’s because these usually generate the broad upwinds. Amateur pilots learn how to assess the weather conditions correctly and plan their flights accordingly in advance in the theoretical part of their training. Anyone wanting to learn to fly must have one thing above all: time. “It generally takes at least two flying seasons until you have gained your certificate,” Christoph says. “Learning to fly is pretty time-consuming – you’re always spending a whole day at the airfield.”

In any case, flying isn’t suitable just an occasional hobby that you can pick up every now and then. It demands too much of the pilots for that. “Gliding is a mentally strenuous sport,” says Christoph. “In the air you’re ultimately reliant on your own resources, which is why you have to concentrate hard for the whole of the flight.” And, in good weather conditions, a flight can last as long as ten hours, covering a distance of more than 1,000 kilometres. On average, the aircrafts move at a speed of 100 kilometres an hour. The maximum speed can be easily twice that, however. The high requirements make that first solo flight without an instructor a formative experience for each pilot. “Before the launch I was incredibly nervous. Once I got in the air, though, it was just so liberating finally being on my own in the plane,” Elisabeth recalls. “And when you have got back down to earth safely again, you feel as if you could do anything.”

Surprise: we’re going to actually fly!

After two hours on the airfield, both my notebook and my camera’s memory are pretty well full up. I would have more than enough material for an article – but my two interviewees have another surprise up their sleeves for me: “You’ve still got time for a quick sightseeing flight, haven’t you?,” a beaming Elisabeth asks me. “Er, sure …?,” I answer a bit uncertainly. I was totally unprepared for this, but wimping out was definitely not an option. Because the club’s gliders are all occupied at the moment, Elisabeth and Christoph quickly organise a Plan B: their club (and also Krones) colleague Johannes will take me up in the power glider.

Before we can get started, the aircraft has to be quickly refuelled, and pushed into position. Johannes then patiently shows me how I (theoretically, at least) can clamber into the aircraft as elegantly as possible, how best to fold myself into the seat, and how to fit the earphones and the belt. While he’s explaining what all the displays and instruments in the cockpit are for, he’s simultaneously preparing for take-off – and suddenly we’re in the air. “Are you alright? When people are this silent, it mostly means they feel sick.” When I hear Johannes’ slightly concerned voice, I can’t help laughing. I hadn’t noticed that I’d stopped talking, I was simply much too fascinated now: by the Upper Palatinate’s lake district below us, the small clouds beside us, and the feeling of sailing through the air in a tiny cabin. Because I’m allowed to choose where we’re going, we fly towards Regensburg. We look at my house from above, and then circle over the city centre. The gliding itself is incredibly enjoyable, but the best thing is definitely the turns – it feels like a roller-coaster ride.

That morning, I still thought I was taking a quick drive to Schwandorf for a routine interview. And now I’m sitting in an aircraft myself. Plus I’ve spent the entire afternoon with nice people, who not only love what they’re doing, but want to share this passion with others as well. Work appointments don’t come any better than this.


Sounds interesting?

The Schwandorf flying sports club is delighted to welcome visitors and new members. When the weather is good, it has flying operations from 9am to 6pm every Saturday and Sunday.